This weekend, I believe I that I broke some sort of world record for turn-around time on a head cold. Friday night, I had my usual you-better-start-drinking-water-because-you’re-about-to-be-real-sick sore throat and last night I felt pretty much a-ok. And if you’re wondering which miracle drug I took? It was beer.
This will be my second post in a row where I take a widely-accepted training idea and throw it into the water before bodyslamming it, Sloth-style.
I’m going to talk about the efficacy of paused work, specifically paused squats and paused deadlifts. I won’t touch on the paused bench press because we already know why the paused bench is important: your competition lifts won’t count if they aren’t paused.
But paused squats and deadlifts are a popular technique, typically used to break through plateaus.
The thought behind paused squats and deads is simple: when you pause the movement (most frequently in the bottom position of a squat or somewhere in the middle of your pull), you eliminate the stretch-shortening cycle in the squat and momentum in the deadlift. This makes the lift “harder” and is supposed to translate into bigger numbers when you return to the conventional lift.
And there are many variations to paused work, all with the idea of taking a “standard” lift and creating a pause somewhere:
- Anderson squats and other forms of “bottoms-up” work
- Rack pulls from various heights
- Box squats of various heights
- Paused deadlifts (most commonly at mid-shin or knee level)
- Paused squats (most commonly in the hole)
Now, if we break it down a little bit further, there are actually two reasons why we might choose to include paused work in our training. The first is exactly what I mentioned above. If we eliminate the stretch-shortening cycle or momentum from the lift, we need to be more explosive to get the weight moving. Think physics: an object at rest will tend to stay at rest. It will take greater force to get that weight moving initially than it does to keep the weight moving.
The second reason would be to extend the time-under-tension of the lift. Let’s say we perform paused squats in sets of 5 with a 5-second pause in the hole. That’s an extra 25 seconds under tension and probably doubles the normal TUT of a 5-rep set! This could translate to bigger legs (because tension and TUT are important parts of hypertrophy) or bigger numbers (because that extra TUT on your erectors will build up your back as well)!
And again, we can take these two goals and break them down even further into a 2×2 chart. On the x-axis, we’ll list explosiveness and extra time-under-tension. On the y-axis, we’re going to list all of the back extensors and the legs. Now, we have a chart that breaks our goals down into explosiveness of the legs, explosiveness of the back extensors, TUT on the legs (for hypertrophy), or TUT of the back extensors.
I’ll start in the upper-left quadrant. Explosiveness of the erectors is one of the most obscene things I’ve ever written in a blog post. I don’t think it has ever been a goal of anyone’s and I think there are more than a few coaches out there that would agree that explosiveness of the erectors is probably your first step on the quest for a back injury.
In the lower-left, we have explosiveness of the legs. This is a very valid goal to train for! However, we must consider many factors when deciding whether paused squats and deads are a valuable tool to develop explosiveness in the legs. My first thought is to check out our speed-strength continuum.
Remember, we have four stations: speed, speed-strength, strength-speed, and strength. If you’re going to throw the Olympic lifts in there, put them under speed strength. Let’s take a vertical jump as our example. The SVJ would be our speed movement. For speed-strength, we might include some kind of jump on a Vertimax, jump squats, or hang power cleans. The strength-speed movement would be either a speed squat or dead, perhaps banded or chained a la Westside. And the strength movement would be, again, either a squat or a deadlift. And it would be really heavy.
So before you consider paused squats as your go-to tool for developing explosiveness, you better make damn sure that you’re addressing all of these points first! If you have no speed-strength type exercises programmed for yourself or your client, you should address that before moving on to paused work.
In the upper-right quadrant, we have increased time-under-tension for the erectors and other back extensors. Paused squats and deads would be an excellent choice for this goal! As I mentioned above, a 5 second pause at the bottom of a 5-rep squat set would double the TUT and provide the core with a valuable stimulus!
I like this as more of assistance work versus max effort. But regardless, good idea.
And finally, the lower-right quadrant gives us increased time-under-tension of the legs. Think of it like this: there are two parts to TUT, time and tension. In the case of paused work, the time would definitely be increased. However, tension is always limited because the core is the limiting factor.
If you’re looking to increase the time-under-tension on your legs, I believe you would be better off sticking to single-leg or machine work. In both cases, you remove the core as the limiting factor and open the door for maximum leg hypertrophy!
Back To That “Explosiveness” Thing
Let’s make a quick return to the lower-left quadrant. Explosiveness of the legs. I mentioned that we should double-check our speed-strength continuum first, but there’s probably a little more to it than that.
Of course, specificity still rules, so we could theorize that even a great SVJ or lots of speed work might not have any direct carry-over to squatting. In this case, keep the paused work in your program! After all, it’s your program! If paused work seems to drive your numbers up or make you more explosive, then you should keep it in there!
As another option, try paused single-leg work. Power is the dividend of force and time. To increase power, you need to increase force or decrease time. By using single-leg movements, we can increase the load on the legs without our core strength limiting us. And the pause will eliminate that stretch-shortening cycle from being a factor.
The answer, as always, depends on your specific goals.
Putting It All Together
So here’s a few programming ideas based on the different goals that I outlined in the chart above.
Goal: Overall lower body explosiveness
1) Banded broad jumps – 3×5
2) Jump squats – 6×3 @ 30%1RM
3) Speed deadlifts – 8×2 @ 55%
4) Paused bulgarian split squats – 3×5
Here, we focus on hitting many different aspects of the speed-strength continuum in order to develop our explosiveness. We could even break this down into two days, with #1 and #4 on Day 1 and #2 and #3 on Day 2, rounding off the program with some general assistance work.
Goal: Improved squat 1RM through increased explosiveness and upper back strength
1) Seated below-parallel box jumps – 4×4
2) Anderson dead-start squats – 5×2 @ 85%
3) Pause front squats – 4×6(3s pause)
In this case, I threw paused variations into our plyometric, max effort, and main assistance work in order to maximize our results.
Goal: Hypertrophy of legs and back
1) Snatch-grip rack pull (mid-shin) – 4×6 @ 75%
2)Bottoms-up skater squat – 4×5/leg
3) Paused back squat – 4×8 (3s pause)
For this last example, I wanted to maximize tension on the legs and back, so I began with two “max effort” exercises. Then I backed off and used higher rep paused back squats to create plenty of muscle damage and metabolic stress!
For overall leg explosiveness, paused variations can be helpful, but paused squats and deadlifts are limited by the core and therefore don’t allow you to fully express the power that your legs have. Try paused single-leg work! For back strength and size, paused squats and deadlifts give us a good chance to increase the time-under-tension. And for leg hypertrophy, paused work can help induce some metabolic stress, but single-leg work could probably be more effective for both strength and size gains.
So that’s about it. The conclusion here is that paused work is probably more valuable for core strength and size versus explosiveness or leg hypertrophy. Of course, the application of paused work is totally dependent on your specific goals and experience with it, so go try it out for yourself!